Samsara is a Sanskrit word for the continuous cycle of redeath and rebirth in which all beings live; thus, ordinary existence. The notion of samsara is shared by both HINDUISM and BUDDHISM. Notions of rebirth are probably age-old on the south Asian subcontinent, but the idea of samsara came to prominence in both Hinduism and Buddhism roughly in the sixth century B.C.E.

For centuries priests who performed the sacrifi ces described in the VEDA had detailed the benefi ts of the sacrifi ces to their wealthy patrons. The primary benefi t was a long number of blissful years spent in svarga, heaven. Around the sixth century B.C.E. certain sages began to speak of what happened when those benefi ts ran out: redeath, followed by rebirth. The conditions of rebirth were determined by the qualities of one’s action (Karma).

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About the same time, the BUDDHA was analyzing the condition of all sentient or conscious beings. On his analysis, all beings experience a continuing process of rebirth as a result of their craving-motivated acts, acts characterized by hatred, greed, and ignorance.

Hindus explain the process of rebirth in a variety of ways, but key to all of them is the notion of an eternal, unchanging self, sometimes called the ATMAN, which undergoes the various births. The situation in Buddhism is more diffi cult, because Buddhists deny that there is any eternal, unchanging self. They tend instead to speak of samsara in terms of a continuity of causality, a continuous series in which each craving-motivated event is both the result of a prior event and the cause of a future one. It is thought that this causal chain is not interrupted even by death.

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Both Hinduism and Buddhism have developed schools of thought that downplay the signifi cance of samsara. Like KRISHNA in the BHAGAVAD-GITA, many Hindus have taught that since the self is eternal and unchanging, it can experience neither birth nor death. The cycle of samsara occurs, then, only on the less real level of appearances. Mahayana Buddhists have tended to follow the great teacher Nagarjuna in asserting that NIRVANA, release, is not separate from samsara. Rather, nirvana is simply a manner of living within samsara.